What does Stacey Abrams’ primary win mean for Democrats and Israel?
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What does Stacey Abrams’ primary win mean for Democrats and Israel?

Stacey Abrams at an election night event in Atlanta, May 22, 2018. (Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

(JTA) — In Georgia’s battle of the Staceys, Stacey Abrams, the state’s onetime House minority leader, defeated former State Rep. Stacey Evans in the Democratic primary for governor.

The big news: for the first time, an African-American woman is a major party candidate for Georgia governor.

Nationwide, the win is seen as a bellwether in the battle for the Democratic soul between progressives and moderates. Abrams is a progressive.

“The Revolutionary Implications of Stacey Abrams’ Victory,” exulted The Nation. (That may be a bit premature: Laura Moser, the progressive — and Jewish — candidate in the primary runoff in a key House district in suburban Houston was soundly defeated by a moderate.)

The Israel wrinkle in the progressive vs. moderates debate — a constant in the last couple of years — played out as well in Georgia. In a Jewish community debate in February, Lois Frank, the former chairwoman of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, asked Abrams about her 2016 vote against a bill strongly backed by Jewish groups. It would have penalized those who comply with the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel.

Michael Jacobs, the editor of the Atlanta Jewish Times, noticed something jarring about her response. Twice in a two-minute answer, Abrams said, “I unequivocally believe in the right of Israel to exist.”

Jacobs was glad to hear it, but unnerved she had to say it.

“In 2018, one of the leading candidates for Georgia governor sees Israel’s right to exist as an issue for debate, not an accepted reality,” he wrote in his column. “I don’t think Abrams has any doubts about Israel’s existence, but her need to say it means she expects others in her progressive wing of the Democratic Party to disagree with her.”

After she launched her candidacy, Abrams appeared to anticipate blowback and outlined her Jewish credentials in a Medium post last November. She joined a black-Jewish retreat in 2003 organized by Project Understanding, the group that sustains the black-Jewish alliance forged in the civil rights era.  She attends an annual Georgia event organized by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and in 2011, she visited Israel as part of the American Jewish Committee’s Project Interchange, which targets promising young policy makers.

But she could not vote for the BDS bill, she said, for the same reason that other progressives who oppose BDS oppose such bills: It brings government in as a referee on boycotts and free speech, which, she said, should trouble those steeped in the history of civil rights.

“While the instinct to use the imprimatur of the state to punish free speech, however abhorrent, is understandable  —  the law then becomes precedent,” she said. “Boycotts have been a critical part of social justice in American history, particularly for African-Americans.” (A few months later, 45 leading Jewish Georgians, including Frank, took to Medium to defend her argument as legitimate even if they disagreed with her.)

It’s an argument that’s going to continue. Louisiana this week became the 25th state to pass an anti-BDS law, and there are a number of legal challenges to such laws in the states that have them.